Thursday, October 13, 2016

Your One Wild and Precious Life - Yizkor Sermon

We are here today at Yizkor to remember our loved ones. While we are in a large community, we will stand as individuals and recall personal relationships with parents, siblings, children and spouses. Maybe we are here today to remember our Mom. Or we are here to remember our Dad. Or, our brother. Or, a sister.  A child. Even if time has passed, perhaps we are here to a shed a tear as we remember the Great Love of our Life.

On this day when we don’t eat or drink, our day is made even more difficult, remembering our loved ones who have passed.
If they left us this year,
back when we were children,
or any time in between,
Yizkor brings up memories and often tears.

While we gather as individuals, look around, right now this expanded room is the fullest it will be all year. We join as one community to share our grief and pain.

As part of an even larger community we said goodbye to so many people this year who left their mark on the national and international stage.

First lady Nancy Reagan, Justice Antonin Scalia, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, and people in the arts like Gene Wilder, Alan Rickman and Harper Lee.

Also included in the list of those lost this year are two men - both of whom were profoundly influential in their respective work on behalf of the Jewish people.  I want us to remember this morning; two men who represent two models of Jewish renewal and resilience. One became American, and built a moral message for Jews and for the world. The other built the Jewish State. The world, and the Jewish people in particular, lost both Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres this year,
Zichronam L’vracha, and the world is poorer for it.

The next generation will never have the opportunity to learn first hand from their wisdom, like so many of us did during their lives.

In Unetane Tokef we read “mi bkitzo umi lo b’kitzo” Who in the fullness of years and who before? At ages 87 and 93, Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres lived a fullness of years, but our world is now bereft because they have passed into the World to Come.

Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres lived very different lives.

One started his life in Transylvania which is now Romania, the other began in Poland which is now Belarus.

One lived through the Shoah and documented his experience in a book he called Night. The other escaped early enough, but members of his family were burned to death, locked in a synagogue.

About 100 people attended one of the funerals, across the river in Manhattan. Elie Weisel was laid to rest in Westchester.

Shimon Peres’ funeral attracted leaders from 70 nations and he was laid to rest at Mt Herzl in Jerusalem, in the Great Leaders of the Nation section between former Israeli Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Yitzhak Shamir.

Shimon Peres and Elie Wiesel knew each other. In 2013, one of these men presented Israel’s Presidential Medal of Distinction, while the other received it.

When Shimon Peres put the decoration on Elie Wiesel he praised him and said: "This is a great honor and privilege for me to bestow upon you the President's Medal. The Holocaust taught us that killing isn't done just with guns and weapons, but also with apathy, and you Elie, are saving the world from that apathy. You are waving the flag of humanity, preventing bloodshed and challenging racism and anti-Semitism, as well as preventing war. You personally went through the most atrocious horrors of humanity, and as a Holocaust survivor you chose to dedicate your life to deliver the message – never again."

Elie Wiesel thanked Shimon Peres and responded trembling: "I'm completely overwhelmed. Israel is in the center of my life, and even though I don't live in Israel, Israel lives within me. I now see myself as an honorary Israeli. Life is composed of moments, not only years, and this moment is worth an entire life."

Both men loved Israel.

Along the way, both men followed in the footsteps of Theodore Roosevelt,  Lester B Pearson and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

And, both men were singled out by name last week by President Obama in his final Rosh Hashanah address.

Think about how sad we were when these legendary men passed away. And we did not even know them personally.

They were not just giant public Jewish figures.

Both Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres were fathers, husbands and grandfathers.

We so often remember change-makers by eulogies made by equally famous people. But we really get to know a person by the words and thoughts of their immediate family.

When Elisha Wiesel, son of Elie Wiesel was asked by Tablet Magazine,  what did your father want his legacy to the world to be? This is how he responded:

He wanted to be thought of as a good Jew. That was the only standard by which he measured himself. In most conversations, it wasn’t about which president he met or any of that—all of which was meaningful to him; he valued that he had grown to play a role on the world stage.

But he looked at himself as his mother and father and grandparents would have evaluated him. That was always in his mind, what would they think of him and his life and what he had made of it.

For him, the guiding principle that governed that lens was always, “Have I been a good Jew?”

That meant many different things to him. If you unpacked what a good Jew was, it meant being a good human being and a good father; a leader in the community when leadership was needed; a good husband; someone who respected and brought respect to the memory and traditions and name of his ancestors; someone who was humbled by the concept of man’s place in the universe but still felt mandated to fix the world; and someone who, when approached by people, would make time to talk with them and make them feel welcomed and listened to.

You came to shul today for Yizkor. You will recite the words “in loving testimony to their lives, I pledge tzedakah to help perpetuate the ideals important to them.”

Can you also stand and recite the prayers with confidence that you are a  “good Jew,” employing Elie Wiesel’s definition.
Are you a good human being?
Have you been a leader when leadership was needed?
Are your actions worthy of  respect?
How have you brought respect to the memory and traditions and names of your ancestors?
How do you think your parents or grandparents would evaluate you and your relationship to Judaism?
How do you perpetuate the ideas that are important to them?

Moments before a young Shimon Peres - then Shimon Persky - departed with his family to their new life in Palestine from the Bagdanov station, he faced his grandfather Zvi Meltzer for the last time. The Old Man cast a deep look into his grandson’s face and with emotion he uttered his last words to the boy. They were “Be a Jew, forever.”

At Shimon Peres’ funeral, Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton spoke, as did the author Amos Oz, Israeli current President Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu. We got to know the real Shimon through the words of his children who publicly said farewell to their father.

In his eulogy, Chemi Peres, his youngest child said:
You kept your promise to your beloved grandfather, when you bid him farewell on your first stop on the way to the Land of Israel. You never forgot what it means to be a Jew. And I promise you that neither will I.

Elie Wiesel’s message: Be a good Jew.
Shimon Peres’ message: Be a Jew.

Momentarily, we will stand and recite the memorial prayers.
Saying the Yizkor prayers is a way to continue the chain of tradition, to remember those dear to us who we’ve lost, and to reinforce the fact that for thousands of years, Jews have been transmitting from generation to generation the values and the legacy of Judaism.

Yizkor is only recited 4 time a year. Today, and the final days of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. Only 4 days of the year are tasked with  ritually remembering the past.

The rest of Judaism is about perpetuating our future.

When we conclude Yizkor, take with you the lessons that your parents, children, spouse and siblings taught you. Take the best of them with you when you exit this sacred room and then teach them to your children and grandchildren.
Just as the entire Jewish people, and the entire world can learn from the lives of Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres, and take their best values with them, so too must you do that with those who are gone ….

In Yoni Peres’s eulogy for his father, he shared the following:

When asked what he would like to have inscribed on his tombstone after death, Shimon Peres said, without hesitation, “He was too young to die.” Think about that for a moment.

And then live every day of your life with this idea in the back of your mind: or, as the poet Mary Oliver would ask, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Disagreements for the Sake of Heaven - Kol Nidre 5777

In the year 2000, I applied to and was accepted into a fellowship of people from all over North America, applying to graduate school to become Jewish Communal professionals.  The fellowship brings together students becoming cantors, rabbis, educators, social workers, academics, and non-profit managers/CEOs from across religious denominations into a community called the Wexner Graduate Fellowship.

The Wexner Graduate Fellowship was created so that Jewish professionals from different backgrounds and orientations might reach across boundaries of religious observance, beliefs, and disciplines to create bridges and friendships that otherwise might never have been. 

At the time, I thought the best part of the fellowship was that the program paid for the majority of graduate school and brought us together for all-expense paid conferences twice a year for several days of learning.  And it’s true, having the Wexner fellowship during graduate school was extraordinary.  But the gift of tuition and professional development pales in comparison to what I’ve gained since then, in the last 11 years since I completed the graduate fellowship and became a part of the Wexner Alumni community.

The alumni of the program include some of the most interesting and diverse leaders in their respective fields of Jewish communal life.  There are right-leaning Orthodox rabbis and secular humanist academics who have studied together and learned from one another, each having gained an invaluable tool: how to listen to and accept difference without becoming defensive, reactive, or closed-down.  In fact, we’ve learned not just to tolerate difference, but to welcome it.  We’ve learned that expanding the circle of those with whom we share ideas and challenges strengthens us all, and it strengthens the Jewish people as a whole.

I could never have known in 2000 how my acceptance into this fellowship would change me; how it would open my eyes and my heart to people who looked and sounded and thought SO differently than I did.
And when I look around at our world today in 2016, I lament the uniqueness of these skills.  The vast majority of us have limited capacity for anything or anyone different from us.  We proudly wave our flags, declaring our political and social affiliations in much the same way as we declare loyalty to a favorite football team.  It’s me versus you.  My team or yours.  If you win, I lose.  If I win, you lose.  And none of us seems to see that when we live like this, we all lose.

I dare say the discourse in our country in 2016 is less tolerant, less open to difference, and more polarized than it’s been since the Civil War.  Sure, issues and ideologies have created divisions in our society many times in the past, but the stark intolerance for even a conversation with someone from a different perspective is strikingly new.

This is what worries me most.  There exists a social acceptability to refusing to accept or understand differences of opinion.  And this acceptability of a polarized society alongside threats of violence against those who disagree makes it a particularly scary time.

We Jews have a collective memory of an eerily similar time in history: Nazi Germany.  Hitler rose to power and was democratically elected by a populace mobilized to hate those who were different; he promised to bring the people of Germany together with his nationalist platform - using a combination of political acuity, deceptiveness, and evasion. He advocated violence against anyone who disagreed with his ideas or looked or sounded different than his ideal.

A strikingly similar arena exists today, not just in national politics, but in our own communal life as well.

You may have read an article last week in the JTA, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about something that happened to a colleague of mine.

She’s a Jewish educator and a rabbi who has been the target of a smear campaign taking aim at her love for Israel and professional integrity. She has received hundreds of pieces of hate mail, aggressive phone calls, social media attacks, attempts to have her fired from her job and even death threats.  

The reason?  She supports a different political position on Israel than do her attackers.  One of the letters she received began with a harsh critique of her political beliefs and then continued,  “I regretfully must express my utmost hope that you are hit by a car to put a stop to the injury you will cause the children that I love.”
As the authors of the JTA piece note, “This was not an anonymous comment hiding in the murky depths of a blog post somewhere. It was a signed letter fervently praying for the violent demise of a leader in the community.”
What is this about?  When did it become socially acceptable to call for the death of someone whose ideology differs from our own?
Have we as a society forgotten what it means to be part of a democracy?  To be a citizen of a country founded to be a place of refuge for those whose political or religious beliefs differed from the mainstream?
It is decidedly un-Jewish.  Our Talmud is a compilation of disagreements between respected sages, each of whom were given a voice in the text and canonized alongside one another.  The Talmud includes even minority opinions, opinions that were never instituted as law, opinions from sages more and less respected as scholars and leaders of their time.  The editors of the Talmud as it exists today not only tolerated or valued differences of opinion, they venerated them.  The more ideas, the more scholarly debate, the more potential to learn.
In fact, the Talmud[1] holds up as a model two schools of opinion that historically disagreed about everything and anything.  They disagreed about the proper way to light a Chanukkah menorah; about the proper way to purify something that’s been ritually contaminated; and the specifics of Jewish legal divorce law.  They disagreed about the specifics of keeping kosher; the laws about appropriate behavior between men and women; and about what constitutes legal marriage.
And yet, the Talmud teaches - boasting about the fact - that the two schools would eat together, study together, and marry each other.  They were brethren.  They placed high value on the opportunity to debate and discuss.  And these disagreements did not isolate them from one other.  They socialized, they co-mingled, they respected one another and each one’s right to hold a different view.
Differences of opinion were known as “disagreements for the sake of heaven” - which means that their utmost hope was to sharpen their understanding of ideas and texts - not to be right, not to prove that the Other was wrong.  But to try to determine the best way to act.
Further, the Talmud[2] recounts a story where the conflict between these two houses came to a head and their opinions differed so much that it seemed there existed two completely different Torahs.  At this point, the Talmud teaches, “a divine voice came down and said, ‘Elu v’Elu Divrei Elohim Chayim,” (which means “these and also those are words of the living God”).  The argument is interrupted by a heavenly voice proclaiming that there is truth in both opinions, even as the two ideas seemed to completely contradict one another.
But, lest we think that it’s like a “stale mate” in chess or a “draw” in checkers, in which there is no conclusive end to the exchange, the heavenly voice concludes,“v’HaHalakha K’Beit Hillel”. Even though there was value - even divinity - in both opinions, the law was to go according to this one only. 
While differing opinions on the matter were valued, the society had to rely on rules to guide right action.  The ultimate value, shared by both groups, was to co-exist in one society strong enough to hold space for difference.  It wasn’t right to create two Torahs.  They did not crave autonomy or uniformity - but rather to live beside and among those with whom they disagreed.
The first half of the heavenly voice’s message provided the authenticity of two very different schools of thought.  And the second half of the message allowed for the creation of a social fabric in which both parties could co-exist with one standard of behavior.  The opinion chosen and the opinion not chosen are both holy.  We are to learn from both and to respect both as viable ways to understand things.  But we live by only one of them.
Our ancestors knew how to argue without fighting. They never would have imagined inciting violence against the opposition.  They would not have understood the social, political, and intellectual polarization that exists today. 

The world of the Jewish sages was a society deeply invested in serving God, finding the way that best advocated justice, tolerance, and peace.  They valued opportunities to learn - not just from those who shared their opinions and biases, but, all the more so, people who looked at the same world with completely different eyes.
They would argue that a culture unwilling to tolerate difference is one that shuns learning.  A group that demands uniformity and is willing only to hear that with which it already agrees, is one incapable of growing.  
A modern orthodox rabbi and scholar, David Hartman, z”l, wrote a book whose title, A Heart of Many Rooms, draws its inspiration from a text in Tosefta Sotah suggesting that we place in one room those ideas and perspectives with which we agree, and then in another room those with which we don’t agree.  This is what creates a heart of wisdom: the ability to hold two differing positions - the holy and the profane, the sacred and the mundane - in one heart.  Your heart.
As November draws closer and the vitriol we hear likely becomes uglier and more pointed, I want to encourage us all to remember the wisdom of the Jewish tradition - the wisdom of a heart - and a community - of many rooms.
Let’s build a community - here at Am Echod - and in spaces throughout our lives - where diversity and difference are cherished, where we find we can learn and grow from an open conversation with those who see the world very differently than do we.  Invite in the opportunity to be challenged by those who look and sound different than you do.  Remember: these and those are the words of the Living God.  And understand that when the election draws to a close, we must choose one path to walk together. 
When we embrace difference, we each grow stronger and wiser.  Let this wisdom guide our steps and our hearts.
Kein Yehi Ratzon / Shana Tova.

[1] Yevamot 14b
[2] Eruvin 13b

On Hearing, Listening, and Seeing: Rosh Hashanah Day 2

The following was posted on Facebook by Natasha Howell, a young woman of color, on July 8, 2016, in Andover, Massachusetts.

"So this morning I went into a convenient store to get a protein bar. As I walked through the door, I noticed that there were two white police officers (one about my age, the other several years older) talking to the clerk (an older white woman) behind the counter about the shootings that have gone on in the past few days.

They all looked at me and fell silent.

I went about my business to get what I was looking for, as I turned back up the aisle to go pay, the oldest officer was standing at the top of the isle watching me. As I got closer he asked me, "How I was doing? I replied, "Okay, and you? He looked at me with a strange look and asked me, "How are you really doing?" I looked at him and said "I'm tired!" His reply was, "me too." Then he said, "I guess it's not easy being either of us right now is it." I said, "No, it's not." Then he hugged me and I cried. I had never seen that man before in my life. I have no idea why he was moved to talk to me.

What I do know is that he and I shared a moment this morning, that was absolutely beautiful. No judgments, No justifications, just two people sharing a moment."

The post was followed with the hashtag LoveWhatMatters

I don’t know Natasha Powell but her post went viral.

Natasha and the police officer moved past skin color and a police uniform.  They stopped thinking about their own agenda and engaged in active listening with the Other. In an era where so many people talk at each other and over each other, these two shared a sacred moment.

And I think this is why the post went viral. In a time when people don’t listen anymore, Natasha and the police officer did just the opposite. People grabbed onto a story of two people acknowledging and listening to one another.

The post reflects what I think is a universal theme of these Yamim Noraim we are are reminded both subtly and explicitly that part of being in the human family is to listen to one another. The dual acts of listening and hearing are woven through our High Holy Days machzor, in the  liturgy, Torah readings and the haftorah, but they are most profoundly introduced through the shofar.   

When we blow the shofar, the bracha, the blessing that is recited is

Barukh atah Adonai eloheinu melekh ha’olam,
asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu
lishmo’a kol shofar.

Blessed are You, Lord our God,
who makes us holy with mitzvot
and gives us the mitzvah of
hearing the sound of the shofar.

The piercing sound of the shofar forces us to stop and listen to it.  It is hard to ignore a shofar blast.

We don’t need to be able to see it in order to hear it. In fact, a shofar is nothing special to look at.  
We are not encouraged to adorn it and make it beautiful, like we are with so many other mitzvot, such as our Sukkahs or our Shabbat tables.

With a shofar, the only one of the five senses we need to use is our hearing.  The shofar reaches our ears like an alarm clock following a long slumber. It is an alarm clock where we can’t press Snooze and just turn off and go back to sleep.
We have to listen.

Even without the benefit of the sound of a shofar, Natasha and the police officer did what the shofar instructs us to. It led the police officer in our story to look past the color of Natasha’s skin and to discover the spark of God in her, and listen to her, shutting out everything else around them. The clerk, his partner, the protein bar; everything became superfluous.

They did not need a shofar, but we do. We need the shofar to get past some of the images that inundate us.

That seldom happens in this age of images. We spend so much of our day in front of televisions, computers, phones and video games.
Al chet for checking email and Facebook as soon as I wake up. Al Chet for keeping the laptop on the table during precious family dinner.  Al Chet for watching our children’s lives unfold through our cameras instead of being present, and listening to their first sounds, sentences and questions. For so many of us, our lives take place through little screens in front of our eyes.
The shofar tells us to put them away and really be present in this moment.
During these Day of Awe we are reminded to rebalance our senses and focus on what really matters. We are tasked with actively increasing what we hear and decreasing what we see.
And the shofar is not the only sound that serves that purpose.
Through the haunting Unetaneh Tokef prayer we are reminded of the need to listen to those around us and to ourselves.
We all pause to hear the shofar. The message is clear.  It is unsettling because we afford ourselves so few opportunities to do that.

When it rains, we look and watch outside instead of listening to the drizzle. When we are by a body of water, we look, but rarely hear the sound of the waves crashing. Both of these sounds are both so gorgeous, but they often go unheard in our daily rush. The shofar tells us there is another way.  But it takes work. Tekiyah!  Do we make time in our lives to hear the beauty and power of nature?

There is a dimension beyond hearing, and that is LISTENING, when we use our ears to have a dialogue with people that truly improve our lives. The message is clear.

We must listen to what is unheard.

Our world , this country, and Israel desperately need more listening. Our communities and families need to slow down and find new ways to connect. We need moments. We need times to slow down. We need clear spaces to listen to each other and listen to ourselves. We need to make room to hear another voice speak.
During these ten days, the biggest gift we can give to ourselves and to each others it to really take time to listen to ourselves, and to each other.  

Find a place away from the static and ask yourself, what must I do in order to actually hear the people in my life? Try it as an exercise. It will deepen your relationships with others.

We seem to have lost the ability to hear and, worse, the ability to listen, in the buzz of 21st century life.  The High Holidays in general - and the shofar in particular -are an invitation to hit “system reset” on our lives and our patterns of interacting in the world. 

I imagine this was the idea behind the poem,
“Listen!” by Rabbis Jack Riemer and Harold Kushner.  The poem reads,

Judaism begins with the commandment: Hear, O Israel! But what does it really mean to “hear?”
The person who attends a concert
With a mind on business,
Hears — but does not really hear.
The person who walks amid the songs of birds
And thinks only of what will be served for dinner,
Hears — but does not really hear.
The one who listens to the words of a friend
Or a spouse or child,
And does not catch the note of urgency:
‘Notice me, help me, care about me,”
Hears — but does not really hear.
The person who listens to the news
And thinks only of how it will affect business,
Hears — but does not really hear,
The person who stifles the sound of conscience
And thinks “I have done enough already”
Hears — but does not really hear.
The person who hears the Hazzan pray
And does not feel the call to join in prayer,
Hears — but does not really hear.
The person who listens to the rabbi’s sermon
And thinks that someone else is being addressed,
Hears — but does not really hear.

On this Rosh Hashana, O Lord, Sharpen our ability to hear.
May we hear the music of the world,
And the infant’s cry,
and the lover’s sigh.
May we hear the call for help of the lonely soul,
And the sound of the breaking heart.
May we hear the words of our friends,
And also their unspoken pleas and dreams.
May we hear within ourselves the yearnings
That are struggling for expression.
May we hear You, O G-d.
For only if we hear You
Do we have the right to hope
That you will hear us.

Hear the prayers we offer to you this day, O G-d. And may we hear them too.

Shana Tova